UK Focus

What do the polls tell us?

12 September 2005



Public support for nuclear now outweighs opposition in the UK for the first time in over five years. By Robert Knight


MORI has been measuring attitudes to the nuclear energy industry for many years, on behalf of a range of organisations including BNFL, British Energy and Nirex.

MORI’s most recent research shows that attitudes towards nuclear energy are now at their most positive, on balance, for several years, both among the general public and amongst members of parliament (MPs). The industry suffered a serious blow to its reputation when it was revealed in 1999 that MOX fuel supplied to Japan by BNFL was accompanied by falsified safety data. The subsequent crisis of confidence saw unfavourable opinion of the industry rise to 49% of the population at its peak in July 2001. Since then, criticism has slowly abated and, by December 2004 unfavourable opinion had fallen to 26%, below the level of favourable opinion (28%) for the first time since early 1999, restoring public opinion to the balance before the MOX issue arose.

Nevertheless deep-rooted problems remain with the reputation of the industry. Favourable opinion is up only nine points since 2001; despite the dramatic fall in criticism since then, the industry has failed to extend its base of active supporters to any significant degree. It is the undecided, neither favourable nor unfavourable, that currently hold the balance of opinion.

A similar pattern is apparent in parliament, though the period since 2000 shows a more convincing improvement in favourable opinion. The position in our last survey (summer 2004) is closely similar to that of summer 1999, historically the most positive under this government, though still less supportive than under the last Conservative government. In summer 2004, criticism (41%) was just five points ahead of favourable opinion (36%). Given the deep divisions on party lines, it is important to break this down separately for both main parties. Support is strong from the Conservatives and continuing to improve. On the Labour benches, favourable views (26%) are still heavily outweighed by unfavourable opinion (48%); even here, though, the trend is positive.

The recent improvement in public opinion is greatest on the issue of new construction that is intended only to replace units which will close over the next few years. This is now supported by more of the population than oppose it for the first time (35% support to 30% oppose), representing a step change in net support since our first measure of this in 2001 (19% support, 57% oppose). The period of steepest improvement was during 2004. In parliament, support and opposition are now closely matched (47% support, 46% oppose) after two years of strengthening support, particularly from Labour MPs.

Reasons given for opposition to new build reflect general objections to nuclear energy. The public emphasises safety concerns, the need to concentrate efforts on renewables and the prospect of pollution from nuclear operations. MPs, too, are most concerned over safety, but they place the emphasis on the disposal of nuclear waste as a major issue.

Among both the public and MPs, renewables are currently the most preferred sources of energy, though neither group apparently takes account of what technologies are currently practical; solar power is among the preferences, despite its embryonic state of development and likely costs. In research at the end of 2003, gas was more popular than nuclear or wind power among the public. Like the public, MPs as a whole (particularly Labour MPs) prefer renewables and place wind power ahead of nuclear energy, but among Conservatives nuclear energy is as popular as solar energy.

Key issues in the nuclear debate nowadays include the importance of limiting environmental damage and restricting global warming, security of supply and the disposal of radioactive waste. The public rates environmental factors as the most important to take account of in the decision of what energy sources to use. Cost is secondary. However, there is doubt in the minds of many about nuclear energy’s environmental credentials – only half in a 2002 survey confidently believed the assertion that nuclear power stations do not produce greenhouse gases that lead to global warming. Furthermore, and illustrating the task of education that still needs to be done, one in three of the public in 2002 was unable to show they understood what global warming was.

Natural gas is relatively popular among the public. However, when told that by 2020 three-quarters of our electricity would be produced by gas, mostly imported, two-thirds of the public were very or fairly concerned. When it is added that these imports may be from Russia and through long pipelines, it does not make any more people concerned, but it does give rise to a deeper concern among the same people (an additional 6% are very concerned).

Radioactive waste is by no means a top-of-mind concern among the public: just 3% mentioned it spontaneously as an environmental issue that concerns them. However, when prompted with a list of six major environmental and scientific issues, the public places the management of radioactive waste at the top of the list, alongside controlling pollution.

Since the energy white paper was published in February 2003, the government has adopted a position of ‘not now, but not never’ with regard to new nuclear generating capacity. MPs were asked what the government should be doing at the moment in order to keep the option of nuclear power open. Such a question identifies the extreme views at either end of the spectrum, from the 25% who would prefer not to keep the option open at all, to the 17% who want a decision now to start building new plants. In the centre ground some want to see continuing research and review of strategy, but the most popular view is that there should be a public debate and a step forward in the education of the public on the important issues. There is cross-party support for this, though different individuals place different emphasis on the need to debate and the need for education.

Picking up this theme of engaging the public in the decisions over energy supply and whether to build further nuclear capacity, we might legitimately ask who is qualified and appropriate to lead or moderate such an engagement. Unfortunately, after nearly 60 years of secrecy, cover-up and mistrust, the nuclear industry itself is clearly disqualified from taking a central role. Just 1% of the population is extremely confident that the nuclear industry operates in the best interests of society. When asked how reliable and honest they expect a number of organisations to be in relation to giving information on radioactive waste, the public places the nuclear industry near the bottom; only the British government is less trusted. The environmental campaign groups are the preferred option, followed by university/academic scientists.

On the basis that the campaign groups are unlikely to be acceptable to the industry as the leaders and moderators of this public engagement we are left with the scientists. MORI research consistently shows scientists to be among the more trusted groups in society; certainly much better trusted than the two groups who would be natural choices to lead this debate: journalists and politicians. However, there is a fundamental difficulty with the public reputation of scientists and this relates to whom they are perceived to be funded by. While 68% would place at least a fair amount of confidence in the research findings of scientists in the IT industry, for example, this falls to 50% for scientists employed by the government and to just 32% for scientists employed by the nuclear industry. While the British public has almost unquestioning belief in doctors, for example, it tends to see scientists as subject to the views and bias of their employer or backer. This remains a debate in search of unbiased, trusted leadership.


Author Info:

This is an updated version of a presentation given at the Nuclear Industry Association’s annual Energy Choices conference held in London on 2 December 2004. The paper draws on data from various recent surveys. Robert Knight, Research Director, MORI, 79-81 Borough Road, London SE1 1FY, UK

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